Student Achievement by Contrivance

Al Jacobs

For those of us who scour the more obscure sections of the Internet, there are unexpected revelations. It’s unlikely many people know that on Dec. 3, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents held the Raising Student Achievement Conference at Pheasant Run Resort & Conference Center, St. Charles, Illinois. This may not sound impressive, except both the topics and the educators seem formidable. The reason I know what’s in store is because each speaker submitted an abstract of what they’ll present. I’ve reviewed a number of them and admit to being both pleased by some of what I see while appalled by the presentations of others.

If there’s one aspect of student achievement which seems to have bedeviled the educational community over the past half century, it’s inequity in academic performance between various groups, particularly when wealth, race and ethnicity are introduced into the mix. Methods to improve performance employed several generations ago – many of them admittedly questionable – are no longer tolerated and politically correct attitudes now appear to prohibit any rational discourse on the subject.

There’s a generally accepted consensus that discussions of and recommendations on student achievement must be phrased in a way which denies any form of disparity or inequality. The following excerpts from several of the abstracts are presented to demonstrate what sort of unintelligibility is required to satisfy this requirement.

“We study the impact of post-1990 school finance reforms, during the so-called ‘adequacy’ era, on absolute and relative spending and achievement in low-income school districts. Using an event study research design that exploits the apparent randomness of reform timing, we show that reforms lead to sharp, immediate and sustained increases in spending in low-income school districts.”

“Using the concepts of academic press and sense of community to represent the two contrasting normative social and academic dimensions, this chapter examines the separate and joint effects to influence student learning. It argues that strong academic press serves as a prerequisite for creating the type of communality in schools that is conducive to higher student achievement.”

“As standards and accountability have become increasingly prominent features of the educational landscape, educators have relied more on remedial programs to help low-achieving students meet minimal academic standards. Yet the evidence on the effectiveness of such programs is mixed, and prior research suffers from selection bias. Using a regression discontinuity design, we find that the net effect of these programs was to substantially increase academic achievement.”

Is it a wonder no practical recommendations of any sort are considered? It’s clear the professional educators speak in metaphors. Their pronouncements are limited to little more than extolling the virtues of academic achievement and uttering phrases in favor of scholastic equality. With this as the academic community’s standard approach, let’s now leave the posturing behind as we consider what practical efforts might be taken to actually enable students to perform more effectively in their studies.

If you’re familiar with the countless articles which pour forth from academia, you know what they claim must be done to ensure no student is left behind. Above all, there must be a limitless supply of money to the educational system. In this way the physical condition of the schools will be thoroughly conducive to learning, the instructors will possess the credentials necessary to guarantee proficiency in their classroom presentations, and all students will be supplied with whatever they need to enable them to fully master the assigned subjects. It’s quite clear the fundamental doctrine ascribed to academic excellence is that the extent of student learning is directly proportional to the amount of money devoted to it.

After ten years as a classroom instructor, I came to question many of the engrained presumptions about how a student learns. I don’t believe the hard-earned teaching credential attesting to superior accomplishment motivates children, either at the primary or the secondary level of education. I mean this not as an endorsement of uninspired instruction, but rather, a realization the relationship between instructor and student depends little upon the academic achievement of the instructor.

More specifically, I doubt a pupil in the first eight grades benefits from a teacher with more than a two-year Academic Arts degree. At the secondary level, through grade twelve, an instructor with a simple Bachelor’s degree is adequate. In the teaching of those subjects which reflect on the reading, writing, and math scores regularly causing controversy, simple competence is sufficient. Particularly at these levels education is – or should be – a systematic and disciplined approach to conventional learning. Instructor brilliance serves no function. Scholastic excellence is best reserved for the college level.

As for material characteristics of a school, as well as the supplies and equipment available, I’m convinced simple functionality is all that’s warranted. The subjects taught during the first eight years require little more in the students’ hands than pencil and paper, or in some instances a five dollar hand calculator. A computer is necessary only in a course of study relating directly to computers.

When presenting information by lecture, the instructor needs only an old fashion blackboard and a 99¢ box of chalk from Target. Sophisticated electronic devices serve no particular purpose. Although it’s true dilapidated furniture doesn’t belong in the classroom, there’s no need for anything other than sturdy low-cost desks and chairs. The point I’m striving to make is what transpired satisfactorily, on the cheap, in classrooms during the Great Depression of the 1930s should work equally well in a 21st Century classroom. I can assure you neither large sums of money nor cutting edge technology do anything to enhance learning.

Let me now express what I believe to be the fundamental flaw afflicting the public schools. It’s that the educational hierarchy embraces nearly every contrivance it can divine to fix the perceived imperfections while ignoring the basic flaw. The approaches include reducing class sizes, bonus pay to mentor teachers, more hours devoted to core subjects, established percentages of racial and ethnic minorities in each classroom, more highly credentialed teachers, increased emphasis on testing procedures, and a variety of programs regularly passing in and out of favor.

However, the fundamental defect afflicting the schools is one which dare not be recognized nor addressed. It’s that many of the nation’s schools are filled with students who have no reason to be there. A great number of students are simply indifferent to education. Others are in environments hostile to learning, where in some locales a student displaying an interest in schooling can be physically assaulted by other youths in the community; this is certainly a challenging problem.

Another factor is a substantial portion of American youth regularly impressed into the classroom does not – and will never – have the mental capacity to read, write or compute at any acceptable level; this sort of handicap neither passes with time nor can be improved with community action. Still other factors plaguing the system include parental indifference, student alcohol or drug use, and a variety of antisocial and anti-learning influences.

I’ll conclude by sharing with you a realization I eventually came to, though regularly denied by those in the schooling business. It’s that scholastic achievement is not a collective activity, but rather a singular endeavor. Until this concept is at least grudgingly acknowledged by the educational establishment, no meaningful improvements will ever occur.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view it on



Your ignorance of the subjects you're writing about is staggering. Just because you don't understand the information being presented at that Illinois conference, you assume that it's all just a bunch of BS. Or could it be that you don't have the "mental capacity" to read at that level? Actual scientific studies by actual educators and social scientists have concluded time and again that things like smaller class size and credentialed teachers have a huge impact on student learning outcomes. I suspect these reports might be full of complex terms, or what you ignorantly call "metaphors" in your poorly written treatise, so you probably haven't ever read any of them. I have no time or patience to explain every one of your ludicrous "straw man" fallacies, but I will just hit on one to make my point. There is NO ONE, ANYWHERE who thinks that the reason you need credentialed teachers is to impress the students with their learning. The attainment of a teaching credential shows that the person has mastered basic classroom management and teaching techniques. It is meant to show that the teacher knows how to teach in some substantive, verifiable way, and isn't just some random person off the street who thinks a blackboard and a piece of chalk are enough to become a teacher. You should confine your diatribes to subjects you know something about.

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